Hemingway’s Widow:  About Mary Welsh

Mary Welsh was born in the Paul Bunyan country of Minnesota. She escaped small-town life, pursuing her dream to become a journalist, and worked her way up from the society pages of the Chicago Daily Express to Beaverbrook’s Daily Express in London, then the largest circulation English daily in the world. Mary wanted to cover the looming European war for Americans, and she moved on to become the first woman writing about foreign affairs for Time-Life. Her friends included politicians, generals, economists, political philosophers, fellow journalists, and novelists.  Despite her marriage to an Australian journalist, she had several affairs. Her lover, Irwin Shaw, suggested she had a “deft tricky way with men.”  This was his way of explaining Mary’s success in an occupation previously reserved for men.

When Mary met Ernest Hemingway, she had a network of worthy friends in London. He was an international celebrity who knew little about the European war. Ernest fell for Mary immediately, telling her that he wanted to marry her on their third meeting, even though neither of them was free to marry at the time. Ernest pursued her relentlessly, writing to her constantly, pouring out his love, and trying to persuade her to become his wife and manager, against the backdrop of the furious fighting through France and Germany.

Despite serious doubts, Mary eventually succumbed to his amorous entreaties and married him. Their stormy relationship lasted fifteen years until his suicide in 1961. It was Hemingway’s longest marriage. Mary survived him for twenty-five years and enjoyed being Hemingway’s widow, for his celebrity continued to cast a glow upon her. Upon his death, she became wealthy, as his sole heir, and powerful, as his literary executrix, enjoying exclusive control over his published and unpublished works. In addition, Mary saved his manuscripts from Cuba, vigorously promoted and defended Hemingway’s reputation, and published one-third of his work posthumously.

Mary has received less attention than she deserves. Hemingway’s third wife, Martha Gellhorn, dismissed Mary as a “maggot of history” for her work on the Hemingway papers and manuscripts. Biographers have written off Mary as a person of inferior breeding compared to the other wives and criticized her for sacrificing her career in journalism to become Hemingway’s wife. They have portrayed her as a mere victim of Hemingway’s irrational wrath and womanizing. Her autobiography, How it Was, has been criticized for its lack of insight.

Hemingway’s Widow presents a different picture. Going beyond her memoir and studying her correspondence, journals, and diaries, we find a spirited, determined, calculating, pragmatic, yet charming person through interviews with those who knew her. She loved Ernest Hemingway deeply and created an environment in which he could work. She believed in his genius and made sacrifices for his art. Mary tried to save him from depression, booze, high blood pressure, and ultimately, aggressive mental illness and suicide. Following his death, Mary worked hard to enhance and promote his literary legacy.